CPUC Orders PG&E to Implement Safety Improvements Amid Stormy Meeting

PG&E subcontractors walk along Skyway, a major thoroughfare in Paradise that suffered heavy damage in the Camp Fire.  (Anne Wernikoff/PG&E)

State utility regulators ordered Pacific Gas and Electric on Thursday to take action on a long list of safety recommendations in a meeting highlighted by an audience protest over the company's possible role in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history.

The California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved a proposal requiring PG&E to implement dozens of steps outlined by an independent firm, NorthStar Consulting Group, hired last year to study the company's safety performance since the San Bruno pipeline disaster.

Eight people were killed and dozens of homes were destroyed in that 2010 incident, which was caused by a poorly welded natural gas transmission line that ruptured and exploded.

But a more recent catastrophe — the Camp Fire in Butte County — prompted the outrage expressed at Thursday's meeting. The blaze, which was touched off at about the same time and place that PG&E later reported failures on electrical lines, killed at least 88 people and destroyed 14,000 homes in the communities of Paradise, Concow and Magalia.

The anger was evident in a hostile round of public comment that included some who said they lived in the disaster zone. In testimony sometimes peppered with expletives, dozens of speakers called on the commission to let the utility go bankrupt or to turn it into a publicly owned utility.

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The tone was set by the first speaker, Steve Zeltzer of United Public Workers for Action, who accused commission leadership of inaction on what he called "criminal activity" by the companies

"I think the people and the working people of California are fed up with the continuing death and destruction caused by the utilities -- PG&E and the other utilities," Zeltzer said. "... The utility executives should be in jail for what they've done. They've lied to the people of California. They've lied to the workers. And they continue to kill people."

After more than half an hour of comments in a similar vein, members of the audience deployed a banner and began chanting, "This meeting cannot continue until PG&E admits its crimes."

When protesters refused to stop chanting, CPUC president Michael Picker called a recess before continuing with commission business.

Picker later repeated an earlier vow to open a new inquiry into the company's corporate governance and operations.

"Since the (San Bruno) report was concluded we've suffered some of the worst fires in California history," Picker said.

The commission order approved on Thursday calls for the development of a comprehensive safety strategy that was a part of the report conducted by NorthStar Consulting Group.

In that strategy, PG&E would include expertise in safety among its list of qualifications for choosing directors of the company's board, and it would appoint a corporate safety officer with operations and professional safety experience.

The NorthStar report also said the company needs to re-evaluate workload levels and increase safety training, among many other changes.

PG&E says it's already on board with the reforms.

"We value and agree with all of NorthStar's recommendations," said company spokeswoman Jennifer Robison.

"We've implemented the majority of their recommendations already, and are on track to implement many more within the next year, along with other ongoing activities to improve public, employee and contractor safety. We believe we have made significant progress, but we also recognize there's always more work to do to achieve our mission to provide safe, reliable, affordable and clean energy," Robison said in an emailed statement.

The NorthStar report does not address the wildfire risk posed by the utility equipment. But that could be the subject of the further investigation that Picker promised Thursday.

"I plan to open a new phase in this proceeding to examine the corporate governance, the structure and the operation of PG&E to determine the best path forward for Northern California (to) receive safe, affordable, reliable electric and gas service," Picker said.

PG&E previously told the commission that one of its transmission lines experienced an outage shortly before the Camp Fire began in an area where the blaze is believed to have started.

The utility also told the commission that one of its distribution lines experienced an issue in an area Cal Fire says may have been a second ignition point for the fire.

While Cal Fire has emphasized the cause of the Camp Fire is not yet known, concerns that PG&E may be held liable for the blaze have sent its shares down, led to concerns it would become bankrupt and prompted some state lawmakers to float the idea of breaking up the company or making it a publicly run agency.

Picker said the CPUC must change PG&E but make sure it continues to operate at the same time.

"This is really like remodeling an airplane in midflight," Picker said. "We can't just crash the plane just to make it safer. We have to keep flying at the same time."

He emphasized that for PG&E to operate safely, the company needs to be financially sound in order to sign contracts, borrow money, raise capital and make payments.

The commission meeting came two days after a federal judge overseeing PG&E asked the utility to explain any role it may have played in the Camp Fire.

KQED's Peter Jon Shuler contributed reporting to this story.